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False reporting is like art

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Alistair Godbold false reporting.jpg

There is one way to find out if a project manager is honest – ask them. If they say ‘yes’ they are a crook – with apologies to Groucho Marx.

This may sound a little harsh but bear with me. As an experienced project manager of over 35 years I have worked on or assured a multitude of projects of all shapes and sizes. In most I have found pertinent information is often not reported by the project manager because: ‘we need to investigate it’; ‘we can recover’; ‘someone else will be late and then we can blame it on them’; up to the ‘we know there will be a change and then bundle it up with that’. Does this sound familiar? I know I have done this!

Equally, project sponsors may not want to hear the truth: they want a quiet life and to know everything is okay or at least plausible deniability so they can bayonet the wounded later, if you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask the question.

To a greater or lesser extent, all of us are dishonest, to ourselves, and to others (1). It is part of being human, very rarely are people outright liars. These little, and sometimes big, lies to ourselves and others mean that the news a project is going to be late usually comes as a complete surprise to everyone, including the project manager. Project managers and project sponsors are often complicit in this self-deceit.

I have come across many reasons for this lack of transparent reporting. Apart from fooling ourselves there are many reasons why people and their project reports do not tell the truth. These include:

  • Ambition – If we want to achieve the extraordinary it is only by setting ourselves (almost) impossible, or at least stretching goals that we achieve anything above mediocrity. The road will be bumpy along the way but that is okay because we are heroes and can achieve anything.

  • Ignorance – We did not see it coming, we were measuring the wrong things or the right things in the wrong way. Many of our projects today are not just complicated but also complex and wicked (2). This means that the traditional way we manage and measure projects does not work in this world and the old techniques only allow us to fail faster (3).

  • Optimism – We can recover. This is greater in the early stages of a project and influenced by the cognitive distance between action and outcome.

  • Incremental – This is like the slow boil of the frog in Charles Handy’s book (4). did we get a year late? We did it one day at a time, then one day the dam burst and it cannot be denied any longer.

  • Denial – We are too attached to the project and cannot see just how ugly our baby is.

  • Fear – I need to save face or will have to write loads of reports and be reviewed to death when I need to get on with fixing this. My sponsor will shout at me, sack me, or the ultimate sanction be ‘disappointed!’. This is not just confined to the direct sponsor, but the public, politicians and other stakeholders can be even less understanding.

  • Delusion – The plan is wrong, but we are convinced the estimate is within the error bounds. We have to believe this ourselves, and then there comes a point where we cannot deny it. The person we are being the most dishonest to is ourselves, we have to believe our own stories until we cannot hide from them any longer.

All of these untruths are made easier if there is a big gap between the report and: the reality of the situation; the proximity to power; the ability to act; time to impact of this information. The more immediate the impact the harder it is to bend reality into our universe and the lens through which we look at the world.

Assuming all of this is true, and people do not report the true status of their project for many reasons, how do we fix it? There is always the knee jerk response to produce more and more reporting with lots more detail. In my experience these detailed, and very colourful reports are great, but not read by many people, less understood by even more and very few are able to spot the inconsistencies in the data that indicates something is not right and there is a lie in there somewhere.

We are all human so saying ‘just be honest’ will not work. False reporting is like art, you have to draw a line someplace (with apologies to G K Chesterton). The tools in our armoury to try and combat this are:

  • Assurance – This is where we get someone else to not only mark our homework but to help us see what is staring us in the face, to help us present this in a way where we get to the heart of the issue and express it in a way that allows us to ask for support. Progressive assurance helps by keeping us honest and supporting us in delivery.

  • Training – Train people to read the reports and question the data and the project management team to make it harder for inconsistent data to be presented. Sometimes you have to see if the data passes that well known project management law with the ‘giggle test’ such as when you have a schedule performance index (SPI) of 0.7 for three consecutive periods and yet still claim to be able deliver on time.

  • Safety – Develop that psychological safety in the team so it is okay to share bad news early (5). I have seen project directors rule with a rod of iron and hold project managers to account, governing by fear. All this does is encourage project managers to hide bad news until nothing can be done about it. At one company where I worked a new project director was head hunted with a much more open style; this resulted in a perceived drop in performance. Whereas, all that had happened was the pressure of all the bad news that had built up in the system was released. At least now, something can be done.

There will always be times when projects do not go according to the necessarily high-level plans that were made when we were blissfully ignorant about the way in which they would be run, the risks and issues encountered and the changes in the environment that would happen along the way. This means it is vital to communicate and focus on the strategic outcomes of the project and take issue if they are not achieved, not to dwell solely in the minutiae of cost and time.

The pandemic of false reporting is an insidious disease, but it can be killed with kindness, support and an enquiring mind.


Want to sharpen your project management skills? Visit APM Learning for interactive learning content that is quality assured and approved by APM.

(1) Dan Ariely “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty” Harper Collins 2012
(2) Tame, Messy and Wicked Risk Leadership, D Hancock, Gower2010
(3) Thriving at the Edge of Chaos, J Sapir, Routlidge, 2020
(4) Charles Handy The Age of Unreason, Arrow Books, 1990
(5) The Fearless Organisation, Amy C Edmunson, Wiley, 2019

Image: Lightspring/Shutterstock


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